Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism

It’s not often you’ll find people arguing against smart growth while also arguing for urbanism. When it happens, one wonders if it was a mistake. That seems to be the case with a screed penned by Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute in Oakland, though his argument is worth highlighting.

While arguing that density isn’t a very effective way of decreasing greenhouse gases, he makes the market urbanist argument I’ve made time and again in this blog:

If governments ended their war on home construction, builders could buy the land they need to construct the housing that local people want, not housing that politicians and smart-growth activists want. That would increase the stock of affordable housing and help the environment too.

While McQuillan digs at smart growth, his critique more aptly applies to our country’s existing urban policies. We have spent so long trying to structure and restrict where and how our cities grow, especially within already built-up areas, we’ve made our cities totally unaffordable for those who want to live there and our suburbs too far from the core for those who want the big-yard, drivable lifestyle.

McQuillan adds: “[H]ere lies the folly of government master plans to control growth. People are not chess pieces to be moved about at the will of politicians and bureaucrats. People have dreams and aspirations for themselves and their families.” And yet through policies that have been in place for over 60 years, politicians and bureaucrats have played a helluva lot of chess with our lives.

If governments like those in Marin lifted density and parking controls and focused instead on maintaining small-town character, if they stopped artificially segregating commercial and residential uses, if the federal government stopped its $450 billion annual subsidy for single-family home development*, if the state stopped subsidizing 70 percent of road maintenance and construction with sales taxes and other non-user fees, perhaps we’d see some equilibrium return to our transportation and housing markets. We wouldn’t need regional housing quotas or ABAG or affordable housing grants because the housing market would simply meet the demand.

It’s unfortunate that only one kind of government intervention – the kind he doesn’t like – is the target of McQuillan’s ire. The massive and ongoing interventions in our real estate market deserve just such a libertarian flaying.

*Yes, that’s almost a half-trillion dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies for single-family home development.

Hat tip to Save Marinwood for the article.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

22 Responses to Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism

  1. Stephen Nestel says:

    The proper link to the McQuillan article is

    Although McQuillan does not favor Smart Growth forced planning, his article refers to the Berkeley study that refutes claims that intensive living in compact developments decreases greenhouse gases.

    As you know, there are many facts to Plan Bay Area that the majority of Marinites find noxious. The phony empirical “research” and white papers is just one insult to our community. Commonsense tells you that increasing the concentration of people, concentrates ALL problems of urban living, pollution, traffic, crime, etc. Claims to the contrary are provably false.

    As to McQuillans argument support for “market urbanism”, I think you are twisting his arguments. While he makes economic arguments for loosening land use regulation, he is not suggesting advocacy of urban villages that you favor. Your vision of “market urbanism” is still top down planning (or crony development) because you are still intervening into the marketplace.

    Perhaps, I am wrong. Maybe you are now a free market capitalist and want land use akin to Dallas that actually achieves many of the stated goals of plan bay area (high density housing, low home costs) using private treaties. Here is an explanation in a 9 minute video:

    • In fairness to the Berkeley study, it does show that moderate densities (in the 30-60 range) do decrease greenhouse gases, but further sprawl cuts into the reduction. There are more environmental benefits, especially in the areas of runoff, habitat protection, and other forms of pollution, but that’s not really the point of this piece.

      Dallas and Houston put in place some fairly onerous controls on the structure of what you can build, especially by dictating to business owners how many parking spaces they must build (as though city hall’s planners have a better handle on what a business’s customers want than the business owner!). They also advocate for and perpetuate massive interventions in the transportation market, which in turn dramatically distorts the real estate market.

      I’m not sure how advocating for the abolition of those subsidies, the abolition of a $450 billion/year intervention in the real estate market, or advocating for the removal of government controls over how and what someone can build makes me an advocate for intervening in the real estate market, but perhaps you can explain how that can be.

      • Stephen Nestel says:

        David, I do not advocate zoning “free for all” like Houston. (I mistakenly identified Dallas above). Zoning definitely has its place in a free market to make certain areas develop with compatible uses. In fact, the private market agrees in Houston as developments have their own private conditions that limit the types of property uses within a given development. I’d prefer to live in one of these places too rather than live nextdoor to a porn store or a pig farm.

        The argument for “market urbanism” is not a free market solution but rather utilizing market controls to achieve a social end much like “cap and trade”. While this might seem to be a compromise it is actually nothing more than the heavy hand of government hiding behind a free market façade.

        The argument for looser regulations for zoning IS worth considering however in the private context ala Houston. What I object to your suggestion such as curtailing the parking space requirement, is that essentially you are gifting developers the right to develop WITHOUT the requirement to protect the “Commons”. For example, Portland is no longer requiring parking for some developments close to a transit stop. Residents are complaining (even those who support Smart Growth) that this type of planning only shifts the burden of parking on the community. Unless you can PROHIBIT car ownership if you live in these buildings, the neighbors are correct.

        McQuillan is correct. Markets work when allow to develop without interference of government policy. He is not commanding others to live in single family homes, he is simply saying that people should have a choice via the free market. I agree.

        • I’m still not sure how removing limits and subsidies is using market controls to achieve a social end, or at least is more interventionist than your argument that the current situation is the natural outgrowth of free market forces.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            Let’s put it this way. Both you and I like class one bike paths for bicycles exclusively. They are a fast, safe way to enjoy your bicycle away from traffic, pedestrians, rollerbladers and joggers. The problem arises when people ignore the restrictions and the above groups encroach on the bike path. Zoning is a bit like that. It does restrict use but for the good of the common resource. By eliminating parking requirements for buildings, the community is forced to have their streets crowded with cars and the developer/business owner is a “free rider” because otherwise he would have to put parking in his building. Clear zoning rules protect the quality of shared resources. Your government mandate of changing zoning undermines the guarantee of consistent use and the right of “local control” by the owners in the affected district. Even though you are using “market forces” to achieve your outcome of more housing, you are degrading the common resource for everyone. It is stealing from the community and undermining local democracy.

          • @Stephen So, to rephrase so I know I’m hearing you right, to keep the free market we need to maintain the existing heavy-handed government interventions, as their continuation was implied when you invested in the neighborhood. Lifting those restrictions to create a freer market actually creates a less free market because it changes the “rules of the game.”

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            no. but thanks for playing devils advocate. 🙂 I am saying that just like having a bicycle only bike path serves the interests of bicycle riders (and pedestrians too who don’t want to be bothered by speeding bicyclists), zoning should be thought as a protection of the common resource. I assume you live in an urban neighborhood in Washington D.C. How is your parking situation? If you don’t notice, you probably don’t own a car. Likewise, you probably think those neighborhoods with zoning restrictions for parking are selfish just as the pedestrian ambling on a bikes only path think bicyclists are “selfish” for not sharing the bike path. Ultimately, maintaining the integrity of common resources IS proper providing it is achieved through non- coercive means such pre-existing zoning or private treaty.

            Let’s talk about something we can agree on- like building more bike paths.

          • Franz Listen says:

            Stephen is quite comfortable using government power when it’s in the service of his objective of promoting a low-density-only landscape. I think that this makes him less of a marketeer than a low density activist who will promote whatever mix of markets and government dictates get him to his goal.

            So…even though most libertarians reject parking minimums and even though parking has all the characteristics that economists associate with private goods rather than true public goods, he’s willing to make the socialistic argument of parking as some type of entitlement.

            He describes zoning as “non-coercive” when it restricts lot sizes to his desired preference, even though government zoning is obviously coercive by definition. When the zoning becomes less coercive and is liberalized to allow for broader market expression, he labels that social-engineering. How dare the government allow for more freedom! It’s coercive!

            He reasons that local governments ought to provide the security and stability of keeping the zoning the same forever, because he could get that in a place like Houston where private residential covenants act as the zoning. However, in Houston the residential covenants do not extend outside of residential pods and don’t cover places like commercial arterials. So…if somebody wants to build a 20 story tower on a main thoroughfare right next to a single family neighborhood, they can do that. You can’t get low-density-only in Houston. You can’t get what Citizen Marin wants in Houston. You cannot get what Stephen Nestel wants in a libertarian environment unless you resort to buying up the whole County.

            Reading Stephen Nestel is a window into the cognitive dissonance that occurs when someone’s ideology does not square with their desired outcome.

    • Stephen Nestel says:

      Franz Listen- Let’s agree not to characterize each other’s imagined positions. Your response to my comments is an example of the “straw man” arguments and character assassination that we have become all to used to by housing activists. One of the reasons this blog is so enjoyable is the way Dave explores ideas and maintains a civil debate.

      To address your points: You accuse me of being a “low density advocate” what ever that is. I live in a community that was built out in 1955. Maintaining the integrity of the zoning as it has been for the last 59 years is hardly radical. It is protecting property rights from government abuse of power. Zoning IS part of the “bundle of rights” included with property ownership. To suddenly change zoning by government fiat is theft.

      You cite “environmental benefits” by destroying my neighborhood to build your urban “Smart Growth” utopia . Where is the “reduce, recycle, reuse” ethic in that? You are buying vacuous promises by “greenwash” developers. Like many of my neighbors, we already live an environmentally conscious lifestyle. We drive hybrids, recycle, compost, organic garden, and live close to nature. (In fact that is why I chose my neighborhood).

      As any follower, of my blog knows, I subscribe to a “live and let live” political philosophy some people call libertarian. It is not a political party and their are no “official” accepted libertarian positions. When you say “most libertarians believe xx” it shows that you are unfamiliar with the basic tenets of libertarian thought that it is a highly individualized philosophy. I’ll be happy to share my thoughts but do not suggest that I must follow someone else who calls himself libertarian.

      To clarify what I mean by preexisting zoning is “non-coercive” is that it is part of the property rights I bought when I bought the house. I knew it was a single family neighborhood and traditionally governments have honored these rights. Now, radical progressives want to use the power of the state to destroy single family home zoning (some say racist) to have all neighborhoods multifamily. This is their way of achieving “social equity”.

      I specifically said that I prefer some restrictions on zoning and find it preferable to “free for all” approach of Houston. Your argument against my point of view is complete conjecture and wrong.

      Franz, instead of attacking a strawman, why not share your thoughts on development and we can have a civil discussion. You may be surprised that we have more common than you think.

      • Franz Listen says:


        Zoning is not a property right and you didn’t buy zoning when you bought your home. Zoning is a restriction on property rights. You may always find these restrictions desirable. However, the merits of any zoning code are both subjective and collectively determined, which is why zoning is inevitably subject to change.

        A change in zoning that allows for more uses or more intensity does not represent a government taking. Usually, when lawsuits are filed over zoning changes they come from those who are upset that the use of their property has been restricted or “down-zoned”. It might be a rancher or a parking lot owner that was hoping to sell out to a developer but suddenly can’t anymore.

        I don’t know anybody of any political stripe who considers “up-zoning”, or allowing more things to be done with a property, to be a taking. Words like “theft” or “government abuse” in this circumstance are not germane. If your property were seized through eminent domain by the County and razed to make way for a publically financed apartment building…THAT would strike me as a potential taking. I’m not seeing anything like that kind of thing happening.

        I agree that excessive loosening of a zoning code can allow for uses that are incompatible or that can negatively impact the character of a neighborhood. I personally don’t want to see overly intense things developed on my residential street of predominantly single-family homes. However, again, I’m not seeing a movement toward this kind of thing happening in Marin.

        I have not seen a single example of a proposal to eliminate or replace single-family zoning anywhere in Marin. Wincup, Larkspur Landing, the Civic Center Station Area Plan (Northgate) – the debate in these places is all about what should be allowed in the future in commercial or industrial areas, or downtown zones, or arterials, or areas that already have higher density housing nearby.

        I think that we should allow for a certain amount of change so that the owners of our worn out or failing buildings and spaces can have the freedom to replace them with things that are better or more economically viable for the future. I am convinced that excessively restrictive and overly dismissive attitudes toward reasonable development and the inevitable replacement of some structures will stultify the County and will make it less, not more, appealing.

        As a citizen, you can advocate for keeping the zoning code just as is or for making it even more restrictive. And you can fight every single development proposal that comes along. That’s your right.

        What I find objectionable, however, are the bogus narratives that go along with the zero-development advocacy: the notion that all change is a government or special-interest-driven conspiracy; the hostility and obliviousness to the marketplace; the odious inference that people who might want to live in something other than a single-family home are being forced to do so (“stack and pack”) against their will; the idea that development projects should be held to an impossible utopian standard while being denounced a do-gooder Utopianism at the same time.

        • Stephen Nestel says:

          Property value is considered a “bundle of rights”. Zoning is just one of many of the aspects of property that determines its value. So when the Board of Supervisors change zoning they may increase or decrease the value of property in the marketplace. Consistent and predictable zoning protects the integrity of property rights. If suddenly, the Board of Supervisor allowed a “drive through” restaurant in a single family neighborhood, they would upset the “consistent” use and devalue all of the property in the neighborhood.

          You need to read up on Plan Bay Area and especially the station area planning guide. The whole concept of Plan Bay Area is to intensify living spaces within the urban footprint. We have only seen 5% of the plan, to understand what is coming next you have to read the Planning Documents, lectures and the leaders of the Smart Growth movement. Portland, OR is about 20 years into their plan and indeed you will see the effective elimination or single family homes. The 101 Urbanized Corridor PDA targets all land within 1/2 mile of 101 for intensive development. It won’t happen overnight but indeed the plan is there and the groundwork is being laid.

          We you say “we should allow” you seem to ignore that the private property is already owned and the “royal we” voice you are speaking is government control, i.e. taking property rights it does not own but should be protecting. Economics viability is decided in the free market, not in the heads of social engineers.

          Once again, you establish a strawman argument. I am not for “zero-development” as you claim. No one I know in Citizen Marin is zero growth. I am for protecting the rights of citizens and private property. Without private property the government can take ANYTHING and the people own NOTHING and are slaves to the state. Ask anyone who has lived in a socialist or corrupt country where property rights and law does not exist.

          I support your right to live in the type of housing you want. I don’t know why you feel the need to control my choices.

          • Franz Listen says:


            The value of your property is based on whatever somebody is willing to pay for it. Value is determined in the market. Value is not a “right”. The term “bundle or rights” in real estate usually refers to various types of things that an owner can do with their property. There is no stick in that bundle that guarantees that your property’s existing zoning will remain the same in perpetuity. That’s not my opinion. It’s a legal fact.

            Do I support using zoning to prevent another property owner from turning their single-family home into a drive-through ? Yes. Is this an actual problem that we face in Marin? No. That’s a strawman argument that seems to be at the core for you. Just become somebody might want to build a 4 story building on a commercial land somewhere in the County does not represent a war on the single-family home. As for the greater Portland area, it has tons of single-family homes. They are no danger of extinction.

            When I use the royal “we” I’m referring to the County’s zoning, not to property ownership. Obviously “we” don’t own private property. But “we” though our elected officials do have an influence over zoning. I am advocating for a zoning that protects single family neighborhoods but does not overly stifle downtowns or commercial / industrial areas and can allow for some new housing in those places.

            You say that the anti-development activists are not against all development – just all of the various plans, proposals and new construction that have come up in the last few years I guess. Can you actually name a development (planned, proposed or built) that you support? The supposed openness to new things in Marin seems to me like a rhetorical cloak used by the anti crowd to seem less extreme. It never manifests in anything tangible, though.

            From the back of the council chambers at the Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan hearing a couple months ago, there were at least two people from Citizen Marin who asked why ANY new development anywhere in Marin should be allowed when we have traffic challenges. One gentleman literally said ” why would we allow a single new unit to be developed?” and he received a heap of applause. So….it is not an exaggeration at all to say that zero-development, or a moratorium on newness, is the basic thrust of many the people that you align with.

          • Woofwoof2 says:

            Franz, for a good explanation of property “bundle of rights” see

            You are also correct that market price is the price. A willing.buyer and seller are willing to pay “in a free market”. That’s the rub. When the government interferes in the market , true market prices cannot be acheieved and distort ions result. Poor people suffer the most.

          • @woofwoof2

            The contention we are considering is whether the existing zoning is a free market or not, and whether a property owner has the right to the restrictions under which he or she purchased the property. The additional contention Franz and I are considering is whether a property owner has the right to the restrictions outside of his property (i.e., on commercial lands) that were in place when he or she purchased the property.

            On the first, I argue no: zoning restrictions are never a free market. On the second, I argue it is a reasonable expectation but not a right (which is why allowing densities to double by lifting restrictions on second units seems to be okay), and on the third I argue the property owner has no right beyond an expectation to no pollution, has no reasonable expectation of constancy, and that the property owner’s preferences should be decided through the ballot box and political action rather than through lawsuits and legal protections.

            Legal restrictions on what an owner can or cannot do on their property to address the second two points necessarily hinder the free market and it can no longer be called “free”. It might be a preferable market, but it is not a free one.

            Regarding my specific arguments: the second two points are up for debate in my mind, as the non-monetary value of maintaining a tract-house neighborhood “character” and its auto-oriented commercial zones is necessarily fuzzy.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            Since this thread is getting pretty nerdy let me offer an excellent legal policy argument for zoning to protect the “neighborhood commons” and against the wholesale dismantling of it by “plan bay area” and smart growth zealots. It’s academic but worth reading:


          • @stephen

            “…the wholesale dismantling of it by “plan bay area” and smart growth zealots…”

            That’s where you totally lose me. On the one hand, we do have an important discussion about property rights. On the other hand, you’re taking a logical leap to something nobody aside from a very few is pushing. It’s akin to when you told me lifting density limits in downtown areas was a threat to your lifestyle. We have no common ground at that point.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            David, I suggest you read the link on zoning that I provided. It is academic but well worth it. You fail to recognize that destroying the zoning of a 60+ year built out community IS a radical idea that has constitutional implications . I stand by my statement that Plan Bay Area is the wholesale dismantling of the concept of property rights. The article says it in better ways than I can muster. It IS radical to think that you or any community outsider has an inherent “right” to mess with the local community. I don’t know when I said that changing the density in downtown messes with my lifestyle except of course from the traffic impacts. There are other solutions for that such as a the new 126 mpg narrow car from Volkswagen that effectively doubles freeway capacity at no cost.

          • Franz Listen says:


            Pretty good article. Thanks. It is basically a defense of zoning and I have no major problems with it. I get the concept of property owners in a neighborhood deriving value, not just from their house and land, but from other thing nearby like local stores, parks, churches, quiet streets, or whatever.

            The essential problem, though, is that the things that uphold value are subjective. One person may think that the shopping center down the road is essential to the character of a neighborhood, while another might not mind seeing it replaced. The article acknowledges this and uses the phrase, “subjective value” a full 8 times.

            It’s author argues that the only realistic way to work out competing values is through the political process. I agree. It also suggests that zoning changes are likely over time since preferences change and so do residents.

            A good quote from the article ….”This underscores the need for flexibility in zoning. Zoning should accommodate changes over time, through mechanisms that encourage individual variances and amendments when supported by neighborhood residents, as well as periodic comprehensive updates of the zoning scheme to reflect larger-scale shifts in neighborhood values.”

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            Franz, It is probably a good time to end the thread when we find ourselves in agreement. I do agree that zoning should be flexible to the changing needs of the community. That is the real question. WHO determines the communities needs and who gets to decide the appropriate change to zoning. The author of the article concludes that it needs to be citizen based solution as close as possible to the affected community. I agree.

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  3. John Murphy says:

    McQuillan adds: “[H]ere lies the folly of government master plans to control growth. People are not chess pieces to be moved about at the will of politicians and bureaucrats. People have dreams and aspirations for themselves and their families.

    Here lies the folly of McQuillan – he believes he is the authority on what people’s dreams and aspirations are, and also that the actual dreams and aspirations are static – what people want today is the same as what they wanted 20 years ago and will be the same 20 years from now.

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